A city's moral obligation
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Jun 27, 2008 | 3146 views |  0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Maudine Holloway listens to a visitor's simple claim, an assertion repeated often in Calhoun County boardrooms and bank offices, a declaration taken by many as truth.

"Our economy is doing well."

Holloway, the director of Anniston's Community Enabler Developer, shakes her head.

"It might be doing good for some folks, but I have senior citizens calling and walking in here every day asking if I can help with their utility bills. It's not good out there for them.

"It is rough. These people, if they're unskilled, they can't make it."

There are numerous reasons why thousands of Calhoun County residents live check to check or rely on help from others. The county has taken gut punches from myriad sources — the closing of Fort McClellan, the slowness in the former fort's redevelopment, the PR hit from housing a chemical weapons incinerator, the environmental pollution in west Anniston, even the delay in completing the Eastern Parkway.

Nevertheless, Calhoun County's economy today exists in two seemingly divergent realities.

One is the Chamber of Commerce model: The economy is strong, with positive job creation, low unemployment of about 4.1 percent and a future resplendent with expected opportunities, many based on the state's love affair with the automotive industry. Fuel prices are deadly, but we're surviving. "I think on the surface the economy is good, but I think the underlying health of the economy may not be that great" because of gas and food prices, said Anthony Humphries, president of Noble Bank and Trust.

The other model is stark: The economy is too dependent on service-sector jobs — wait staff, food preparation, retail sales, secretaries, minimum-wage, blue-collar laborers, hotel employees — and has allowed predatory lending services to seep into nearly every nook and cranny along the Alabama 21 corridor. They represent a fringe economy, one that cannot be accurately measured in chamber statistics or by economists who believe low unemployment is the tell-tale economic gauge.

The city of Anniston's decision in November 2007 to place a moratorium on the issuing of business licenses for auto title pawn shops and payday lenders put the county on notice. The county's core has become a magnet for legal businesses that prey on low-income residents who have no other option or make questionable financial decisions, not to mention workers with seasonal or part-time jobs and fluctuating pay.

Title pawn shops specialize in small loans, typically under $1,000, secured by a vehicle title. Under the Alabama Pawnshop Act, the lender is legally allowed to charge the equivalent of 300 percent annual interest. Miss a payment, and your vehicle can be repossessed, even if the loan amount is far less than the value of the car.

Payday lenders offer cash advances against an upcoming paycheck, and are allowed to charge the equivalent of 456 percent interest.

According to Jarrod Simmons, the city's revenue officer, the number of title pawn businesses in Anniston has doubled since 2000 — from eight to 15 — as has the number of payday lenders, which has increased from eight to 15 since 2004.

The profits are more staggering. In 2004, the gross receipts for the payday loan businesses were just under $1.5 million, Simmons said. In 2007, that swelled to more than $3.5 million — and that's not counting revenue from title pawn shops, which do not report gross receipts to the city because of differences in their licensing. For comparison, Anniston's gross receipts for fast-food restaurants in 2007 was more than $33 million.

Now the city is waiting on a ruling from Attorney General Troy King on whether it can change its zoning ordinances to ensure that no check-cashing or payday loan business can locate within 600 feet of any similar business. The point, according to City Planner Toby Bennington, is to seek some sort of balance so that a proliferation of payday lenders in 2008 doesn't morph into a blight of vacant storefronts in 2010.

In that sense, it's a purely business decision for Anniston. But don't be fooled. This is not solely an issue of business, for Anniston or the county as a whole.

The rise of the predatory lending industry in Calhoun County calls into question both the health of our economy — forget the raw data, seek out the hidden realities — and the moral obligation cities hold. Without a demand for title pawns and payday lenders, there'd be no supply. Otherwise, these businesses "wouldn't be here," said Bill Fielding, dean of the College of Commerce and Business Administration at Jacksonville State University.

That's Economics 101.

It is inhumane for government to allow predatory businesses to prey on our residents, just as it's inhumane for those same leaders to allow an economic structure to continue that makes these businesses a necessity for those whose ends rarely meet.

"There is a moral aspect, and there can be a moral aspect applied to different businesses," said Bennington. "We do have to recognize the cultural and social aspect of any type of land use."

Anniston Mayor Chip Howell, when asked about a town's moral obligation to address a rise in predatory lending, had a direct, though brief, response: "I could not argue those statistics or those opinions. It is a cause of concern."

As it should be. As should be the county's overall economy, the key to any community's health. Even with the arrival of Kronospan in Oxford, expansion at Anniston Army Depot, Honda Manufacturing jobs in nearby Lincoln, and the sporadic success at McClellan, critics of the local economy are correct to point to the area's lack of job-creation diversity. It is clear that the county, and Anniston in particular, needs less of what it has and more of what it needs — high-tech, cutting-edge industries that Gov. Bob Riley has recruited to other parts of the state.

"Anniston has a culture that it is not in wealth creation, it's in wealth transfer," said Jacksonville State economics and finance professor Chris Westley, who maintains that Anniston's historical reliance on government-sector jobs is a hindrance to its economic growth.

"Until wealth is created again, you're always going to have a class (of residents) that depends on predatory lenders to get by. … You've got to attract industry that attracts wealth, and it can't be (the Department of) Homeland Security (at McClellan)," Westley said. "That affects the culture of the city."

Mr. Mayor, would you agree that we need more wealth growth? "I won't argue that," Howell responded.

There is no quick-fix answer, no magic wand to wave. For Holloway, all she can think about is her clients, many of whom regularly grace the doors of payday lenders. "They see that moment of peace when they get that $200. It's a dream, a dream they have that next month they'll come up with something else. … It's a vicious cycle. But what can you do?"

That's a question we must answer. This community's moral obligation is clear. The proof sits up and down Alabama 21.
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